The Red Sox’s record hasn’t been great, but the last few weeks have been lovely in terms of pregame stress. Not needing a fifth starter is impossible over the grind of an 162-game season, of course, but some lucky scheduling breaks allowed that for the Red Sox over recent weeks. On Friday, that honeymoon period is over, and they’ll finally have to choose a replacement for Joe Kelly’s spot in the rotation.
To few people’s surprise, they’ve announced that Roenis Elias will be that replacement.
This is undoubtedly good news for Elias, but him winning this spot is more faint praise than anything else. I mean, his competition was Joe Kelly, Clay Buchholz (who has six walks and three strikeouts in 6.1 innings out of the bullpen) and Henry Owens. However, as underwhelming as his current competition is, Elias has proven to be as solid as he is unspectacular as a starter in his relatively short career.
Prior to getting the call to Boston, the now-27-year-old spent two years in Seattle serving as something close to a full-time starter. To wit, 49 of his 51 appearances came as a starter, including all 29 of his appearances in 2014. His performance was nothing to write home about — something that should be obvious considering he was the secondary piece in the Wade Miley deal — but he was a perfectly acceptable back-end hurler. In both these seasons, he pitched to adjusted ERA’s just slightly below the league average with peripherals to match that kind of performance.
Elias has proven to be as solid as he is unspectacular as a starter in his relatively short career.
The underwhelming existence that is Roenis Elias: Starting pitcher doesn’t just end with the numbers, either. In order to produce these slightly below-average numbers, he relies on a fastball/curveball/changeup mix. If you were told to dream up the most boring starting pitcher repertoire, I’d be willing to bet that’s the mix you’d pick.
This isn’t meant to be an insult, either, because it led to solid strikeout numbers at least. Unfortunately, the pitch he worked off most of the time — his fastball — is also his worst pitch. The heater sits in the low-to-mid nineties, but doesn’t induce whiffs or ground balls. At the same time, a higher rate of line drives are hit off the pitch than any of his others. Again, this isn’t a particularly uncommon occurrence for someone of Elias’ caliber, but it helps paint the picture of who he is.
To his credit, his secondaries have been much more effective over his career. Both pitches boast whiff-per-swing rates over 32 percent (per Brooks Baseball) and they both induce ground balls on over half of balls put in play against them. These two pitches are the reason he’s able to maintain a strikeout rate slightly above the league-average starter, coming in slightly under eight K’s per nine innings.
Guys with this kind of strikeout rate can certainly excel at the highest level, but they need at least plus command. Elias…well, Elias doesn’t even have average command. He’s had a tremendous amount of trouble with control over his career, walking roughly a full batter per nine innings more than the league-average starter. The issue is quite simple: He can’t hit the strike zone. He’s had little problem drawing swings on pitches out of the zone — though he’s not elite in this area, either — but that can’t outweigh zone rate. While the middle of the pack in zone rate is typically around 48-to-49 percent, Elias is all the way down at 45 percent over his career.
It’s not just the walks, either, as he’s had plenty of problems with the long ball. Despite pitching in Safeco Park and other pitcher-friendly ballparks out west, he’s allowed exactly one home run per nine innings over his career. That’s a rate that could be expected to rise as he shifts to the American League East, especially if he can’t find a way to keep the ball further down in the zone. For whatever it’s worth, that hasn’t been the case in Triple-A given his 0.9 HR/9 rate with Pawtucket.
So, he’s solid with strikeouts, just average with home runs despite pitching in pitcher-friendly environments and bad with walks. All of this mediocrity leads me to two possibly contradictory points. The first is that Elias is fine, assuming it’s roughly what the Red Sox can expect moving forward. If he can go about five innings per start and allow three or four runs more often than not, the Red Sox can live with that. The most important thing for Elias — and the rest of Boston’s pitchers — is avoiding blow-up outings. We know Buchholz and Kelly haven’t been able to do that, and it takes Boston’s biggest asset — it’s high-powered offense — out of the game too early. Of course, blow-up is a vague term, but if we define it as allowing five runs or more (an admittedly crude and arbitrary definition) Elias’ history is encouraging.
Just 18 percent of his career starts fit this definition.
The other side of this coin is that such subpar performance can’t be acceptable for the rest of the season. Elias’ mediocre pitching is fine for a team trying to make it through to the trade deadline, but contending teams in August and September need to do better than that. This is particularly true for a rotation that includes Steven Wright, who always seems like a risk to turn back into a pumpkin, Rick Porcello, who has looked more like 2015 Porcello lately, and Eduardo Rodriguez who hasn’t lived up to his potential thus far this year.
Elias’ mediocre pitching is fine for a team trying to make it through to the trade deadline, but contending teams in August and September need to do better than that.
Whether they find that replacement internally (unlikely) or externally (very likely), Elias probably can’t be a starter for a team in a tight playoff race, barring injuries. Again, this is nothing against him, because there is value to having players like Elias on the roster, but this Red Sox team will need better eventually.
Finding a better starter would also allow Elias to be unleashed in the bullpen, where he could provide some real value. There’s not a ton of data with him pitching in short stints, but the hope would be that his stuff plays up enough for his ability to garner strikeouts to mask his command issues. Even if it doesn’t, he’s had plenty of success against left-handed hitters over his career. For instance, he allowed a .231 TAv against lefties in 2015 compared to a .282 mark against righties. For a Red Sox team relying on Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross as the left-handed relief options right now, Elias would be a welcome change.
That’s looking too far down the road, though. Elias is going to take the hill for his first start in a Red Sox uniform on Friday, and it likely won’t be his last based on his competition. He’s not going to be anyone’s favorite pitcher, but he’ll be fine for now. The strikeouts will keep him in games, but the command will keep him from dominating.
As with just about every player, it all comes down to expectations. If you just hope for Elias to keep the team in games, history shows he can serve that role. Just don’t look for anything more.
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